Which Cancer Patients Turn to Alternative Medicine?

Medically Reviewed by Merle Diamond, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 28, 2000 -- About a quarter of cancer patients in a new study say that yes, indeed, they do use therapies outside mainstream medicine, and a third say they're interested in doing so.

The research, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Cancer, was conducted at a hospital in Innsbruck, Austria, and involved more than 170 patients with various types of cancer. Therapies most commonly turned to included vitamins, herbs, and homeopathy.

The study found women more likely to incorporate these complementary or alternative therapies into their anticancer treatment plans than men. And younger people are more likely to do so than older. Patients with cancer that had spread also used alternative medicine more frequently than others.

Six years ago, Roger Cochran of Atlanta found himself in the latter category -- after he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer that had spread to the liver. In addition to regular medical treatment, Cochran, a Buddhist, embarked on an intensive spiritual program as added therapy. "I sensed very early on that one of the things I was missing was an interaction with a physician who knew me as an individual and as a person," he says. That observation led Cochran to "fire" his first oncologist and sign on with a second who was more comfortable with complementary therapies. "He said to me, there's no known cure for stage four colon cancer. Anything you do is going to be just as good as I do."

Among the things Cochran did: chanting for half an hour every day a 17th century Buddhist healing chant; listening to "healing" music; making photocopies of healthy livers and hanging them all over the house. "I've looked back, and I'm quite surprised at the amount of time I spent on some things -- such as convincing the cancer [through imagery] that it was embarked on a course that was not good for either of us."

Cochran says he was at first devastated to learn that the five-year survival rate for his cancer was about 7% -- but gained perspective after visiting a Buddhist teacher. "When haven't you been dying?" the teacher asked Cochran. That's when Cochran told himself, "death is a process, not an event. It occurs at the end of a long process we call life." And for Cochran, life goes on. He's now free of the cancer -- having become [in another of his visualizations] that dot at the far right side of a "survival" graph he found while researching his disease.

That willingness to research is another characteristic associated with users of complementary therapies, the study shows. Also, surprisingly, is a level of trust in regular medicine. And while alternative medicine users were more likely to seek out supportive care, the researchers found through psychological testing that they were no more distressed or lacking in social support than other cancer patients.

But Terri Ades, MS, RN, of the American Cancer Society, tells WebMD it's important to consider the source of this study. "There have been other studies looking at this type of information and they have shown the exact opposite of this," she says. "First of all, some of the alternative therapies in the U.S. are not the ones used in Austria. Also, patients in the U.S. may have a different perception of alternative therapies." Ades says the bottom line is that complementary and alternative therapies are more accepted elsewhere in the world.

But that's not the case for Atlanta lung cancer patient Marilyn Sonenshine. Among the items in her alternative therapy arsenal: music therapy, massage therapy, yoga, visualization tapes, and herbs. "It helps to have a doctor who's open-minded," she says, "who doesn't have a really big ego."

But she admits her doctor has little positive to say on the topic of herbs. "He won't say yea or he won't say nay. According to him they haven't been proven. But I know how I feel ... so I continue with the herbs." She also continues treatment with the conventional drug Herceptin and attends support groups. "You make good friends who know what you're going through, and you learn a lot."

Ades says that's precisely what cancer patients need to do before embarking on any form of alternative therapy -- after, of course, talking with their doctors. "People should do their own research," she says. "Find out as much as they can before using the alternative therapy." And make sure the information is scientific and reliable.

Cochran thinks that for some cancer patients, complementary or alternative therapies just aren't the right way to go. "There are people for whom a complementary approach will come to mind immediately," he says. "Others would think it's idiocy."

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